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Invest in steering all on the information superhighway

The European Year of Lifelong Learning has focused minds on adult education. But when you look closely it is hard to see more than warm words.

Perhaps the reforms needed are waiting in the wings. The current reliance on voluntary action and a ragbag of policies will not deliver a learning society.

The Year is gathering momentum, with small grants given to numerous organisations. Everyone from the Association for Language Learning to the Engineering Employers' Federation and the National Federation of Women's Institutes in Wales is focusing events on lifelong learning.

Almost 500 organisations responded to the Government's consultation document, Lifetime Learning. The Liberal Democrats are committed to individual learning accounts and to removing inequities of funding in post-16 education. Labour's policy document on lifelong learning is expected soon. A surprising consensus exists on the surface.

This was evident at the Trades Union Congress conference when Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard, her Labour shadow David Blunkett and TUC general secretary John Monks preached that Britain needs to become a highly-skilled economy where everyone has the confidence and the appetite to learn. All agreed, too, that Investors in People, set up to promote staff development, is an effective tool to help bring this about at work.

Yet despite this agreement and work to promote National Targets for Education and Training, the country is slipping in the international competitiveness league, largely as a result of weak education and training.

There are signs of hope - illustrated brilliantly at the TUC conference by adult student Wendy Fenn. She said her confidence to learn was sapped at school but recovered through the public-sector union Unison's Return To Learn programme. It moved Mrs Shephard to depart from her prepared text to reflect on the story of Wendy putting her heart into a school essay which was returned with a red line through it and the comment "piffle and poppycock". Mrs Shephard's passion for learning shone forth as she spoke of teachers' responsibility to foster positive attitudes to learning and avoid such casual cruelty.

We have far too many adults with Wendy's experience of initial education who have not had the opportunities and encouragement offered by Unison. This was demonstrated graphically by Bob Worcester of MORI at the launch of the Royal Society of Arts' Campaign for Learning, backed by business, Government and education providers, when he showed how far off a learning society we are according to MORI's survey of attitudes to learning in schoolchildren and adults.

The Office for Standards in Education report on adult education said where you live determines whether you have a reasonable chance to get back to learning. And we can't yet rely on the Internet to make good the gaps.

To harness the possibilities of new technologies, and to make up for this lack of opportunity would be easy enough. We need a national network of local learning centres - information technology versions of the community launderette, along the lines developed in Manchester's electronic village halls.

Building on SuperJanet, the academic broadband network, we could establish local learning centres where anyone could expect to have access to help driving along the superhighway. This is not just the kind of fantasy encouraged by too much time in conferences.

After all, the National Lottery Charities Board is intending to inject serious money into adult learning later this year. It would be a marvellous investment for the millennium, and the lottery could strengthen the political will to invest seriously in the learning society.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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